Sorry, Charter Boosters: Record Numbers of Teachers at Chicago Charter Schools Are Organizing Unions

Unionized teachers can help keep charter administrations accountable to their workers—and to students.

Micah Uetricht April 12, 2017

Teachers at the ASPIRA charter school network rally on March 9 during union contract negotiations with management. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

It’s a deli­cious irony for teach­ers unions that Rauner Col­lege Prep — a Chica­go char­ter school named after Bruce Rauner, Illi­nois’ vir­u­lent­ly anti-union gov­er­nor — may soon have a union.

"The only accountability charters have is when we form unions in them."

On March 3, the Chica­go Asso­ci­a­tion of Char­ter Teach­ers and Staff (ACTS) announced an orga­niz­ing dri­ve at the Noble Net­work of Char­ter Schools, which has 18 cam­pus­es across Chica­go, includ­ing Rauner Col­lege Prep. If the cam­paign is suc­cess­ful, Noble will become the nation’s largest union­ized char­ter net­work. The addi­tion of Noble’s 800 teach­ers and staff to its ranks would also give ACTS, a local of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT), an impres­sive den­si­ty in Chicago’s char­ter mar­ket — the union says it would rep­re­sent as many as 40 per­cent of char­ter teach­ers in Chica­go. About 10 per­cent of char­ter teach­ers nation­wide are union­ized, accord­ing to the pro-char­ter Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Reform.

The Chica­go Teach­ers Union, a sis­ter local to ACTS, has been a bright spot in a bleak labor land­scape. But tra­di­tion­al pub­lic school edu­ca­tors aren’t the only ones on the move. Chica­go is also at the epi­cen­ter of a nation­wide push to union­ize char­ter schools. The AFT says it now has 7,000 mem­bers across char­ter schools in 15 states such as New York and Cal­i­for­nia, where large orga­niz­ing dri­ves are also gain­ing stream. More than 1,000 of the union’s char­ter mem­bers are in Chicago.

ACTS hopes to increase char­ter teach­ers’ pay and ben­e­fits (accord­ing to data obtained by Cat­a­lyst, a Chica­go edu­ca­tion pub­li­ca­tion, full-time Noble teach­ers make about $60,000 a year includ­ing bonus­es and stipends; CPS teach­ers make $74,000), increase teacher reten­tion and wrest con­trol away from unac­count­able” char­ter man­age­ment. In doing so, the union may elim­i­nate cor­po­rate reform­ers’ incen­tives for push­ing char­ters in the first place.

The growth of char­ter schools dur­ing the past decade has gone hand-in-hand with the dis­man­tling of pub­lic edu­ca­tion. In the 2015 – 16 school year, near­ly 3 mil­lion stu­dents — up 250,000 from the pri­or year — attend­ed more than 6,800 char­ters across 42 states, accord­ing to the pro-char­ter Nation­al Alliance for Pub­lic Char­ter Schools. In Chica­go, char­ters have spread rapid­ly at the same time tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools have been shut­tered. The city infa­mous­ly closed 49 schools in one fell swoop in 2013 and closed about 100 in the decade before that. At the same time, new char­ter schools have con­tin­ued to open, total­ing 130 today. The schools are pri­vate­ly run but oper­ate almost entire­ly on pub­lic dollars.

Char­ter boost­ers say the mod­el pro­vides school admin­is­tra­tors the free­dom to inno­vate. In a state­ment respond­ing to the Noble union dri­ve, Super­in­ten­dent Michael Milkie said that the char­ter net­work would respect the rights of indi­vid­u­als to orga­nize or not orga­nize.” How­ev­er, he warned that a restric­tive union con­tract could elim­i­nate the cur­ricu­lum and flex­i­bil­i­ty we have to best serve our stu­dents’ needs.”

Char­ter crit­ics, mean­while, say that this so-called flex­i­bil­i­ty stems from the absence of work­er pro­tec­tions. Union­ized teach­ers, like all union work­ers, nego­ti­ate the terms of their employ­ment; non-union teach­ers work at the whim of their employ­ers.” Like­wise, while account­abil­i­ty” is a watch­word for char­ter oper­a­tors who say that they aren’t behold­en to any­thing oth­er than stu­dent out­comes, ACTS Pres­i­dent Chris Baehrend says this couldn’t be fur­ther from the truth.

The only account­abil­i­ty char­ters have is when we form unions in them,” says Baehrend. Before then, you find it was a whole bunch of crony fam­i­ly mem­bers and friends” in lead­er­ship posi­tions or receiv­ing con­tracts at charters.

A prime exam­ple is Chicago’s large and influ­en­tial UNO Char­ter School Net­work, whose 16 schools serve more than 8,000 stu­dents. Before open­ing its first char­ter in 1998, UNO’s roots were in Saul Alin­sky-style orga­niz­ing in the city’s Lati­no neigh­bor­hoods, and the orga­ni­za­tion quick­ly posi­tioned itself as a pow­er play­er in Chica­go pol­i­tics. But a series of inves­ti­ga­tions by Chica­go Sun-Times reporter Dan Mihalopou­los in Feb­ru­ary 2013 found that UNO had engaged in major ethics vio­la­tions, includ­ing hand­ing out large con­tracts for ser­vices to fam­i­ly mem­bers of the network’s high­er-ups. After sev­er­al gov­ern­ment inves­ti­ga­tions, mil­lions in pub­lic fund­ing were pulled from the net­work, and UNO CEO Juan Rangel was forced to step down in disgrace.

Up against the ropes, UNO lead­er­ship pro­posed a neu­tral­i­ty agree­ment, and teach­ers quick­ly union­ized. Sev­er­al oth­er lead­ers were forced to resign, and the school cleaned up some of its most egre­gious practices.

Like­wise, teach­ers at the ASPI­RA char­ter net­work, who joined Chica­go ACTS in 2010, say that one of their biggest con­tentions with man­age­ment was basic bud­get transparency.

ASPI­RA has been dete­ri­o­rat­ing for the last five years,” says Marines Mar­tinez, a teacher at ASPI­RA and act­ing head of the union’s coun­cil of edu­ca­tors, cit­ing a lack of basic main­te­nance in class­rooms. That left us to won­der: Where is the mon­ey going?”

Baehrend says the union helps ensure that more char­ter resources go to class­rooms, rather than admin­is­tra­tion. Exact fig­ures on just how much admin­is­tra­tors earn are dif­fi­cult to come by. While the City of Chica­go releas­es names and salaries for all oth­er city employ­ees, includ­ing teach­ers, it does not do so for char­ter teach­ers, and most char­ter net­works refuse to pro­vide them.

To achieve its aims, Chica­go ACTS has not shied away from work­place mil­i­tan­cy. In the last six months, the union has threat­ened to strike three times when con­tract nego­ti­a­tions reached a stand­still. While all three strikes were ulti­mate­ly avert­ed, that’s still quite a change from 2012 when, days before the Chica­go Teach­ers Union strike, then-UNO CEO Juan Rangel bragged about his school stay­ing open while pub­lic schools shut down. The rapid turn in Rangel’s for­tunes, just four years lat­er, prob­a­bly pro­vid­ed a bit of schau­den-freude for teacher union­ists. But more impor­tant­ly, char­ter orga­niz­ing and ACTS’ will­ing­ness to strike mean that char­ter teach­ers can­not be pit­ted against their coun­ter­parts in tra­di­tion­al pub­lic schools.

[We want] a future in which every char­ter school in Chica­go is union­ized,” says Baehrend. That’s a win for both of our locals. No longer will char­ters be used to under­cut the labor of CTU members.” 

Mic­ah Uet­richt is the deputy edi­tor of Jacobin mag­a­zine and host of its pod­cast The Vast Major­i­ty. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and for­mer asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times. He is the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty (Ver­so 2014), coau­thor of Big­ger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Cam­paign to Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ism (Ver­so 2020), and is cur­rent­ly at work on a book on New Left­ists who indus­tri­al­ized.” He pre­vi­ous­ly worked as a labor orga­niz­er. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @micahuetricht.

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